One year later: a look back, the view ahead


It's been one helluva year. Last September, the underpinnings of the world economy got mighty shaky. It was enough to make you wonder: Was it all a house of cards? Was everything about to come down around our ears?


After Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in mid-September, the stock markets tanked, credit markets froze and an economic pandemic emerged full throat. Remember AIG, Washington Mutual and the congressional debates over the bailout plan? That was just the beginning.

On Sept. 29, the Dow plummeted 778 points as the House initially rejected a bailout measure. It was the single largest one-day drop in history. "Stocks Crushed!" blared the headlines. We were, according to more than one expert, "on the brink of economic disaster."

I remember well the shell-shocked looks on the faces of dealers and builders at the Norwalk (Conn.) Boat Show in late September. Mine, too. Somber times, indeed. And there was plenty more to follow. All of us, I suspect, are only too happy to leave the last 12 months in our wake as we claw our way back upwind.

The crisis may be over and traction improving, but any real momentum will be subject to plenty of starts and stops for the foreseeable future. Two steps forward and one step back would be an improvement over what many of us have been experiencing.

We'll get there, but progress will be slow. How slow? A chief concern is that unemployment, which in all likelihood is headed for 10-plus percent, will act as a giant sea anchor on growth and recovery. The consumer, however, remains a wild card; they could surprise us yet.

For much of this year, there's been a lot of talk about how our industry was going to have to "get smaller," how you couldn't get small fast enough. Look around - we're there. We're all pretty darn lean right now. Sure, more contraction will probably occur, but I'd like to think that most of the downsizing has taken place.

The job loss estimates are staggering for an industry our size. By some accounts, as many as 200,000 jobs - perhaps 75 percent of the work force - have vanished since 2005, with the vast majority of those coming from manufacturing. Who reading this column hasn't been affected? How many will come back and when remain open questions. Certainly some of the consolidations and closures will be permanent.

For many, this last year has been about hunkering down and doing whatever it takes to get through. More than one person - myself included - has used the phrase "survival mode." Everyone is wearing more hats and doing more of everything than they did before the recession.

Smart companies paid close attention to their businesses, working diligently to control expenses, cut costs and manage cash flow. Good, fundamental business practices. A lot of inward focus on balance sheets, forecasts, budgets, and so on. And as crucial as that attention was and remains, it's important to keep looking outward, as well - to your customers, partners, the consumer, the product itself.

Depending on your business, survival and success in this tough, cash-strapped market encompass a broad array of initiatives and strategies, everything from maintaining access to credit markets and developing innovative products to improving the core competency of your work force, implementing sales and marketing campaigns that will resonate in a down market, and the effective use of the Web. Don't leave a stone unturned. Think 360 degrees.

Speed, versatility, competency, the ability to change and adapt, to make tough decisions, roll with the punches and land on your feet - those are just some of the elements that the winners will embody.

Are things as broken as they appear? That's a tough call when you're in the middle of things, but count me among those who can see at least a glimmer of light at the end of this long tunnel. In the end, I believe our customers' passion for boats and the water will be the fuel that powers our recovery. That's still a ways off, but rest assured the phrase "pent-up demand" is not dead, just hibernating.

Passionate, die-hard boaters will be our saving grace. It's that simple and, for right now, that elusive.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.


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